What does the ruins of Boleskine House have to do with QAnon?

Through 2020, as QAnon promised to destabilise the US democratic process, and anti-vaxxers threatened to perpetuate a global pandemic, theories about an older conspiracy were quietly playing out by the banks of Loch Ness in the Highlands of Scotland. Boleskine House, the former home of Aleister Crowley and later, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, has been approved for restoration which will see it being opened to the public for tours, with ten eco-cabins built on the grounds for guests. Or rather, its shell has. Boleskine House was badly damaged by an accidental fire in December 2015, losing most of the interior. When I visited the site in 2016, it was fenced off and full of rubble. It was put up for sale in April 2019, and was bought by Keith and Kyra Readdy, who founded the Boleskine House Foundation to raise the money needed to restore the site. But a second fire broke out on July 31st, 2019, destroyed the remainder of the interior, and claimed the roof. The fire brigade investigated the second fire as arson.

As someone who grew up in Inverness during the time that Page owned the property, the story has a particular fascination for me. But as a scholar of contemporary religion in historical perspective, the most interesting aspect is how it shows that ideas about “Satanists” still have currency in the modern age. Boleskine House is famous as the former home of Aleister 

Crowley, who owned it between 1899 and 1913. Crowley had impressive careers as a mountaineer and poet, but it is for his writing on the occult that he is most famous today – he was a prodigious innovator and systematiser of different magical systems and incorporating Egyptian deities and yoga techniques into his practices. He received a series of channelled communications in 1904, and years later these would form the basis of his esoteric religion, Thelema. In the popular imagination, however, Crowley is remembered for the “Wickedest Man in the World” epithet that he gained as a result of a court case, in which he was branded a “Black Magician” and a sexual reprobate. This had more to do with the homophobia of the Edwardian period than reality, however, exacerbated by his adoption as a figurehead of the sex and drugs culture of the 1960s, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Crowley was certainly an egotist, and could be cruel, but a more sober assessment of his life would have to also count him as one of the most important figures in the history of twentieth century new religions, directly influencing the development of Wicca, Scientology and Discordianism, as well as founding Thelema and leading the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).

At the beginning of December 2020, Councillors on the South Area Planning Committee approved the proposals, despite resorts of “a number of objections” from locals. In addition, Councillor Margaret Davidson is quoted as saying: “Over the years it has been a place people have visited and become obsessed with the area… That has caused its own difficulties for people in Foyers and Inverfarigaig, the nearest villages, and I would wish that to stop for them.” But the chairman of the committee concluded that “matters associated with previous ownership of the property… are not material in planning matters.” I was pleased that the local Council approved the application, because although Inverness is a pretty liberal and secular place, there are certainly still pockets of Lutheran conservatism in the Highlands. The more traditional Conservative press picked up on the story, even as global pandemics, Brexit and a climate crisis all reached a head, showing there is still a deep-seated fear of the occult.

Take this article which appeared in December in the Herald. It is relatively sober, at first glance – even if it does claim that Crowley “became known as ‘the real-life Wicker Man’”, which makes little sense on any level. But a closer reading shows that it is embedded in a worldview in which Christian forces of light are battling an occult, even Satanic, darkness. It states that Crowley “conducted various black magic rituals at the house including a six-month long experiment to raise his Guardian Angel. It is said the experiment was not properly completed, with the spirits raised never fully banished leading to a number of unexplained events at Boleskine.” Such a story only makes sense if you are in a universe in which there is in fact magic, and also spirits which can be raised by (ab)using it.

More sensational was the story originally in the Inverness Courier, and later picked up by the Daily Mail (as well as others) under the headline “Plans to build holiday lodges close to fire-ravaged Loch Ness house of Aleister Crowley spark fears area will become a shrine for SATANISTS visiting home of ‘world’s wickedest man’ who inspired some of Rock n’ Roll’s darkest music.” It cites “objectors”, but only two are ever named in multiple news stories. One, Naomi King, stated that “the place will become a major Satanic temple and a hub for Satanist abusers from across the world to visit”. This is nonsense, as Crowley was never a Satanist, nor are any of the organisations identified in the reports, such as the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis), which is not a “secret society” either. Interestingly, the article also mentions (conspiratorially) that King “claims her comments on the council’s planning portal had been ‘sanitised’ – with all references to Satanism removed”. 

This might be due to the fact that Satanic Ritual Abuse, which she refers to directly and indirectly, does not and has never existed – at least, outside the imagination of conspiracy theorists and fundamentalist Christians. It might also be due to the fact that the other complainer is the Fresh Start Foundation, who have a connection to Robert Green, an independent investigator who has been jailed twice over the Hollie Greig case, UK Column, a news website known for circulating right-wing conspiracy theories, and the grand dame of UK conspiracism, David Icke.

The Boleskine House Foundation stated that the site was not intended to become a place of “pilgrimage and ritual”, and that  the connection to Crowley did not “directly influence its future use”. But this seems disingenuous; Keith Readdy, trustee of the Foundation, describes himself as an academic “researcher in comparative religion”, but his one publication, One Truth and One Vision: Aleister Crowley’s Spiritual Legacy, states that it is aimed primarily at Thelemites, and much of it is concerned with establishing the legitimacy of different OTO lineages. And there has certainly been a warm relationship between the Foundation and the OTO, though, after accusations of child abuse and an arson attack, you can understand why this isn’t being highlighted by the Readdys.

Even weirder, there have been other Crowley-related hit pieces this year – this one from the Daily Mail describes the Tree of Life (a standard element of Jewish mysticism for centuries) on the floor of an abandoned cottage Crowley once stayed in as “apparatus believed to have been used to try and contact demons”. This report concerns a man trying to sell a wax-splattered box supposedly found in the basement of Boleskine, despite the fact that it is of the kind which costs a few pounds from any head shop in the country and looks almost new. 

So what’s the beef? Why take up valuable newspaper real estate at a time when there are other, more important things to write about. Funnily enough, this brings us back to QAnon. Both of these are inheritors of the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of the 1980s and 1990s, predicated on the existence of an imaginary secret religion who deliberately invert Christian morality, and use sexual abuse and cannibalism in rituals. It is often conflated with real groups like Wiccans and the OTO, even though neither is Satanic, involved in ritual abuse, large enough to organise such things anyway and aren’t even particularly secretive. The same goes for the Church of Satan, as founded by Anton LaVey in 1966, which is probably best regarded as a particularly theatrical version of Humanism.

Creator: Ted Eytan. Via https://mancunion.com/2021/01/12/opinion-the-republican-party-is-complicit-in-the-attack-on-capitol-hill/. Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nevertheless, large numbers of people believe that such an imagined Satanic Other exists. For most, this is probably just an internalisation of Christian narratives about good and evil, and of the existence of demons and devils. These implicit beliefs are stoked up by more active players, however, mostly (though not exclusively) Christian fundamentalists with an axe to grind, and who, because of the traditional association of Christianity with moral good, are able to speak into the ear of the press, police and politicians. 

But there is certainly an aspect that is to do with defending the body politic against invasion – which is why such ideas tend to flare up at times of societal unrest, and why we see the same motifs popping up in antisemitic tracts from the Middle Ages to the Third Reich. So while the battle between good and evil plays out on the steps of the US Congress, it is also playing out in local newspapers and planning applications.


Behind the (Nativity) Scenes

By Marion Bowman

Kimber’s Farm, Charlton Musgrove, Somerset, 2020

It’s the time of year when Nativity scenes appear in a variety of public spaces, homes and churches. Commemorating the Christian narrative of the birth of Jesus, they can vary from the miniature to life-size. The scene is so culturally familiar in Britain, as elsewhere, that it can be both highly stylised and/or be ambiguously or amusingly portrayed (such as Moomins in this shop window display, below) and still be recognisable.

Moomin Nativity Scene, shop window, Cirencester, 2018

Nativity scenes are examples of religion in the public domain that have become so commonplace as to be almost unremarkable; they are indicative of the sometimes creative, sometimes uneasy negotiation of a Christian tradition that in some respects has become secularised, as well as being  observed by people of a variety of religious and cultural heritages. As with many calendar customs, it is not until you look at different national, regional, family and even individual variations and understandings of notionally the same thing that the complexity of such events becomes clearer.

Miniature Peruvian nativity scene

I find contemporary Nativity scenes fascinating on a number of levels, because there is just so much going on in them—and behind them! For me, Nativity scenes combine three of my major academic interests: material religion; vernacular religion, defined by Primiano as ‘religion as it is lived: as humans encounter, understand, interpret and practice it’ (Primiano 1995: 44); and the Bible of the Folk, characterised by Utley as ‘the tales which derive from the Bible and its silences’ (Utley 1945: 1).

St Francis of Assisi is generally credited with the first ‘living’ Nativity Scene, on Christmas Eve 1223 in the Italian city of Greccio, to help people recapture and meditate upon the wonder of the original nativity. The scene was staged in a cave outside and, then as now, was a device to ‘position’ the nativity in a familiar context, making it locally as well as (in Christian terms) universally relevant.  Thereafter the Franciscans spread the tradition of creating nativity scenes with live actors and animals. With the development of static nativity scenes came further opportunities for the addition of all sorts of local and contemporary material culture and traditions, and the vernacular expansion of the details of the nativity story.

Nativity scenes have become the visual shorthand for an amalgam of the Christmas story from the Gospels in the Christian New Testament. If you envisage a typical Nativity scene in the UK, what do you see? The usual scene consists of a hut-like building, the stable, with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in a manger, and probably also shepherds, three Kings, assorted animals in the background, and perhaps angels and a star above the stable. They reflect a timeline in which, according to Christian tradition, Joseph and Mary, having to travel away from home and encountering difficulties in finding accommodation at their destination, end up in a stable, where the baby Jesus is born. Angels alert shepherds in nearby fields to a miraculous occurrence, so they come along to the stable to see what’s happening. Eventually some days later three Magi (wise men or, as they later became thought of more popularly, kings) appear bearing gifts, led to the location with the aid of a guiding star. So the typical UK nativity compresses events which occur over a period of time into one simultaneous image (as with the Kimber Farm example above).

Tyrolean Nativity Scene, Museum of Tyrolean Regional Heritage, Innsbruck, 2019

Detail, Tyrolean Nativity Scene, Museum of Tyrolean Regional Heritage, Innsbruck, 2019

In other parts of the world, nativity scenes might be far more elaborate. I remember being amazed by the detail and complexity of Spanish nativity scenes when first encountering a specialist market in Barcelona, selling all sorts of nativity scene requisites beyond simple statues of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Spanish nativity scenes tend to incorporate a far broader range of side-scenarios in a Bethlehem that looks distinctly local. There are miniature mills with water courses and moving wheels, groups of people gathered round a flickering fire—and somewhere in the scene the Caganer, a bare-bottomed, defecating figure (usually discreetly positioned away from the holy family).

A distinctive Tyrolean style of nativity scenes has developed with scenic backdrops unlike the Holy Land, again self-consciously relating the local to the universal in a manner highly typical of vernacular religiosity. As examples of what is regarded as traditional local craft, scenes in this genre are displayed in the Museum of Tyrolean Regional Heritage in Innsbruck.

In the Krippenausstellun at the Hotel Mondschein in Sexten, a small town in the Dolomites that suffered badly in the first world war (https://www.hotelmondschein.com/krippenausstellung-hotel-mondschein.aspx ), there are various examples of Tirolean scenes. However, one of the most moving examples in this collection is the ‘Christmas 1918’ nativity scene, showing the holy family group alongside the destroyed Hotel Mondschein in the then devastated Sexten.  This underlines one of the important pedagogical points being made in Christian terms of the ‘localised’ nativity scene—it places the Christian story wherever its audience is, and though notionally capturing a moment in history, it is also presented as timeless.



Weihnachten 1918, Krippenausstellun at the Hotel Mondschein, Sexten, 2019

Time for Nativity Scenes


Liturgically, Advent is the period ahead of the birth of Jesus, which in the Western Christian calendar can start between 27 November and 3 December; Advent is a time of solemn reflection, and in some traditions is still marked as a period of fasting, similar to Lent before Easter. The celebration of Christmas technically starts with the birth of Jesus and lasts until Epiphany (6 January) when traditionally the three Magi visit Jesus: these are the 12 days of Christmas. Liturgically, however, the Christmas season lasts until 1 February.

An interesting aspect of nativity scenes that I have become increasingly aware of in recent years relates to the logic and logistics of timing. As mentioned, if you think back to the ‘typical’ UK nativity scene and who and what it depicts—Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, three wise men—it tends to simultaneously compress a narrative that stretches out over a period of time. In the public domain this may not pose a problem, but as we discovered during the fieldwork of the AHRC funded Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals: Part and Present (https://www.pilgrimageandcathedrals.ac.uk/about), it can be a point of tension in some cathedral and church contexts (see Coleman, Bowman and Sepp, 2019).

For the project we worked with four partner Cathedrals: Canterbury and Durham Cathedrals, York Minster (Anglican) and Westminster Cathedral (Roman Catholic). At Christmas far more people come to cathedrals and churches generally than at other times of the year, and clearly it expresses for many a sense of belonging. While Cathedrals are happy to receive such visitors, there can be some mismatches in terms of liturgical praxis and more ‘secular’ expectations. Our fieldwork with cathedral clergy, volunteers and other staff around the Christmas period revealed a sense of ambiguity, even ambivalence, over public perceptions of Christmas and how they relate to the wider framework of Advent.

At Canterbury Cathedral we were told ‘The season of Advent is a real hotchpotch because we could do a jolly Carol Service in the afternoon and then at Evensong we’re back into Advent mode, and then there’s another Carol Service for another group’. Similarly, as one informant at York Minster put it, ‘Christmas for the minster begins… with Advent, and is not a full-blown celebration at that time, but a preparation; then when the rest of the world goes back to work, the Minster is in liturgical mode. [We] must recognize that for others, Christmas is over. For the Minster it goes on till Candlemas [2 February]. We are asked why we don’t put lights up earlier and why the nativity is still there “after”.‘

Popular expectations and experiences of Christmas tend to foreground the run up to Christmas as a period of partying and pleasant expectations, as opposed to seeing it as a reflective or indeed penitential period. Although the twelve days of Christmas are referred to in song and on Christmas cards, for many people the Christmas season largely ends with Boxing Day (26 December), actually before the Christmas story has liturgically ended. This can cause some issues in relation to nativity scenes, which our partner Cathedrals handled in different ways. A verger at York Minster explained: ‘The week preceding Christmas we will have put the crib up in the North Transept, but the crib will be empty. And people… come in, see the crib, are puzzled as to why there’s nothing in it, and then we have to explain that actually we’re not at that point yet in the year where we actually have the figures in the crib… the Christ Child doesn’t go into the crib until Christmas Eve.’ Similarly, at Westminster Cathedral, although the nativity scene is likely to be placed on show around mid-December, the baby Jesus figure will not be placed into the crib until 24 December. (We were told that, following an attempted theft, the Jesus figure is now screwed into his crib!)

Meanwhile at Canterbury Cathedral, it has been common to put the baby Jesus figure into the crib as soon as the Nativity scene is set up—a pragmatic response, as explained by one of  the canons of the cathedral: ‘In reality we have Jesus in the crib because so many visitors see their visit as an early celebration of Christmas and the baby in the manger illustrates the truth that Jesus was born and died and rose again and is always with us.’

The nativity scene used in Durham Cathedral is indicative of the localising/ vernacular tradition of such scenes already mentioned, containing interesting allusions to the historically locally significant mining industry (see https://www.facebook.com/durhamcathedral/videos/durham-cathedrals-unique-nativity-scene/289019548418700/). Carved by Michael Doyle, a retired pitman, the donkey is a pit pony, the crib is a “choppie box” (in which the ponies were given their feed underground), the innkeeper is dressed as a miner and there’s a whippet in the scene. In the Durham nativity scene, the baby Jesus figure is customarily placed in the crib early on, but is covered by hay until Christmas Eve, when he is removed and then placed back during the Midnight Mass. Volunteers are informed that he must be hidden until the appropriate point of the service. However, in December 2016 our researcher Tiina Sepp spotted the baby Jesus uncovered well before Christmas Eve and mentioned this fact to a steward, leading to a swift restoration of the layer of hay above the statue. The steward’s interpretation was that some parents had wanted to show their children the Baby Jesus and therefore removed the hay from him, again highlighting the differing expectations of visitors and cathedral staff.

Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral, 2018

Elsewhere, however, the timeline of the twelve days of Christmas is more closely observed. This was strikingly demonstrated by a visit to Cologne in January 2018, timed to coincide with Epiphany on January 6th, when according to tradition the Magi finally arrived to see Jesus. Cologne Cathedral houses the magnificent Shrine of the Three Kings, said to contain the treasured relics of the Magi. A fine example of Bible of the Folk, from minimal gospel references to ‘Magi’ (Matthew, verses 2: 1-9), usually translated as wise men, the three foreign visitors to the stable gained ‘back stories’, and became popularly designated Kings with the names Melchior (from Persia), Caspar/Gaspar (from India or Tarsus) and Balthazar (designated King of Arabia, sometimes more specifically Ethiopia, and since the 13th century depicted as black).

The Three Kings, St Andreas Church, Cologne, January 6 2018

Through a grille in the beautifully crafted 13th century shrine, three crowned skulls can be seen, above each their name picked out in precious stones. While normally access to the shrine is limited, on 6 January people are allowed to go through the gates and get close to it, which still proves an enormous attraction. Thus, in Cologne there is a very definite sense of the temporal progress of the nativity story, the three kings’ role in it and by extension nativity scenes.

Queuing to get close to the Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne Cathedral, 6 January 2018

Visiting nativity scenes in various Cologne churches after Christmas but ahead of January 6, we became aware that the Kings were absent.  After a while we realised that in some churches there was simply no sign of them, while in others the Kings were to be spotted perched up on the gallery, or out in the church entrance, or gradually moving up within the church as Epiphany approached. It was only on January 6 that the scene was complete, in line with the liturgical calendar. Among other things, this prompts repeated visits to churches to see the nativity scenes as they develop over time!

Nativity Scene, Minoritenkirche, Cologne, 3 January 2018




Three Kings in nave, heading towards nativity scene, Minoritenkirche, Cologne, 3 January 2018



There is a lot going on behind nativity scenes—from Bible of the Folk embellishments on the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, to craft traditions and local pride, from a sense of belonging to evangelising and sometimes uneasy negotiations of secularised assumptions and religion in the public domain. So, as you encounter nativity scenes in this strange year, think about the implications of what you are actually seeing, who is there,  what the setting is, what part of the story is being represented—and notice how long they last!

And of course, if you see any interesting examples, please do send them to us at david.robertson@open.ac.uk and we’ll share them on our Instagram account.

Three Kings arrived at nativity scene, Minoritenkirche, Cologne, 6 January 2018



Colman, Simon, Marion Bowman and Tiina Sepp. 2019. ‘A Cathedral Is Not Just for Christmas: Civic Christianity in the Multicultural City’ In Pamela E. Klassen and Monique Scheer, eds. The Public Work of Christmas: Difference and Belonging in Multicultural Societies. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, pp. 240–261.

Primiano, Leonard. 1995. ‘Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife’ Western Folklore 54, 37-56

Utley, Francis Lee. 1945. ‘The Bible of the Folk,’ California Folklore Quarterly 4(1), 1-17

Pilgrimage and tourism at India’s ‘Land’s End’

By Gwilym Beckerlegge

I first visited the small town of Kanniyakumari in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu in 2006. The town is named after Kanya Kumari, the ‘virgin goddess’ who is a representation of the Great Goddess, to whom the town’s most well-known temple is dedicated. Evidence of Kanniyakumari as a centre of Hindu pilgrimage, especially for devotees of the Devi (Goddess), stretches back well over a millennium.

The meeting of three seas off its shore is believed to add further to Kanniyakumari’s sanctity. Fringed by steep conical hills and bounded on the southernmost tip of India’s mainland by the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea, it is a place of great natural beauty.

Approaching Kanniyakumari






Its striking seascape is renowned for its spectacular sunrises. One can readily understand why Kanniyakumari is sometimes referred to in guidebooks as India’s ‘Land’s End’.

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Decolonising Religious Studies

By Paul-François Tremlett – part of our series on Black History Month.

As part of the Open University’s events marking Black History Month I gave a short lecture examining textual and visual representations of Melanesian Cargo Cults, to highlight how the production of knowledge about Cargo Cults by anthropologists and others was sealed off from overlapping contexts of colonialism, capitalism and racism. The lecture focused on Francis Edgar Williams’ ethnographic account of the so-called Valaila Madness (1923) and David Attenborough’s representation of the followers of John Frum in the film, The People of Paradise: A Journey through the South Seas (1960). I suggested that these representations of Cargo cults were structured by a Western conception of rationality that, while abstractly premised upon the psychic unity of humankind in practice furthered the active denigration of black voices and experiences.

Such critiques in anthropology are not new: for example in 1973 Talal Asad in Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter – and 13 years later Renato Rosaldo in Writing Culture – insisted that attention be directed to the techniques through which anthropological and scientific knowledge has been separated and insulated from the colonial contexts in which it was produced. Importantly, they also advocated experimentation with new kinds of ethnographic writing that could accommodate “multicentric, dialogical perspective[s]” (Borofsky 2020, p. 2).

In tandem with the welcome advance of global south and decolonial epistemologies in anthropology, the field of Religious Studies has seen a shift in recent years away from essentialist and a-historical accounts of this or that World Religion (with a capital R) represented more or less as discrete and unitary systems of ideas and beliefs, to a focus on lived religions. The field has a complex, inter- and trans-disciplinary ancestry including anthropology, history, philology, philosophy, sociology and theology, yet epistemological debates about methods and theories have remained largely trapped within a series of over-lapping binary oppositions including reason : experience, insider : outsider, qualitative : quantitative and reductionist : phenomenological, that have helped sustain a range of problematic, Western assumptions such as the privileging of mind and Man over matter. The lived religions focus is decidedly about what people do rather than what they believe and it has brought to the fore voices, groups and communities that were silenced by the World Religion approach, but nevertheless it does little to challenge the hegemony of the meaning-endowing and rational-choice-making individual as the unit of analysis in the study of religions,

and is largely silent about post-humanist epistemologies and the contribution they can make to decolonising the field. Malory Nye has constructively exposed some of the blind spots in the teaching of Religious Studies, for example its habit of “celebrating diversity” while “not talking about race” (2020). Furthermore, informed by the work of Bruno Latour, Graham Harvey has stressed the importance of thinking religions in terms of “embodiment, materiality, and relationality” in order to “radically contest the privatization and interiorization of religion” (Harvey 2020: 144) that emerged under the hegemony of white, Protestant modernity. In a similar spirit and riffing from writings by Jane Bennett, Manuel DeLanda and Gilles Deleuze, I have suggested that the focus in Religious Studies should be the transformations of historically and culturally situated and stratified assemblages of religions, secularisms, technologies, states, spaces and economies (Tremlett 2020).

There is no quick fix to decolonising Religious Studies, no single, simple step to a decolonised curricula or pedagogy or research methods. But we do have skills of listening and learning through which the field can better reflect on itself as a mode of production for generating knowledge about religions and the wider world. Those skills need to be brought to bear both to experiment theoretically and methodologically in our research, in the design of curricula and in the development of teaching and assessment strategies.


Asad, Talal. 1973, ‘Introduction’ in Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter, (ed), Talal Asad, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Barofsky, Rob. 2020, ‘Rethinking Ethnography: A Study in Public Anthropology’ in Anthropology Today 36 (5): 1-2.

Harvey, Graham. 2020, ‘Trans-Indigenous Festivals: Democracy and Emplacement’ in Ritual and Democracy: Protests, Publics and Performances, (eds), Sarah M. Pike, Jone Salomonsen and Paul-François Tremlett, Sheffield: Equinox.

Nye, Malory. 2020, ‘A Discussion of the ‘Religion and Worldviews in Religious Education’ Report: Critical Race Theory’ https://medium.com/@malorynye/religion-and-worldviews-in-religious-education 142c0007ce37

Rosaldo, Renato. 1986, ‘From the Door of his Tent: The Fieldwork and the Inquisitor’ in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. (eds). James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tremlett, Paul-François. 2020, Towards a New Theory of Religion and Social Change: Sovereignties and Disruptions, Bloomsbury: London.

Williams, Francis, Edgar. 1977. ‘The Vailala Madness’ and Other Essays. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii.

Black Majority Churches and the transformation of British Christianity

By John Maiden – our second post marking Black History Month (see first post here).

What has been the impact of the ‘Black Majority Churches’ (BMCs) on post-1945 British Christianity? Why is it imperative we address a lacuna in the literature on British religious history? I had the privilege today of trying to address these questions in an (online…of course!) lecture for Black History Month in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University. It was an opportunity to talk about research which I’ve recently published on in two places: Evangelicalism and Dissent in Modern England and Wales (edited by David Bebbington and David Ceri Jones) and in an article for Twentieth Century British History journal.

Evangelicalism and Dissent in Modern England and Wales  book coverIt is particularly problematic, I argued, that the ‘early’ Black Majority Churches, those which appeared in the United Kingdom in the decades immediately after Windrush (though thanks to David Killingray and others, we now know something of antecedent congregations in the first half of the century), are largely, if with some notable exceptions, absent in the otherwise booming historiography of secularisation or ‘religious change’ in the 1960s and 1970s. The observations of some contemporary Christian leaders and commentators during the early 1970s were that (as the sociologist Congregationalist pastor Dr Clifford Hill put it in 1971) an ‘urban evangelical explosion’ was underway. These have in some respects been proved right. Without proper discussion of this ‘new nonconformity’ we are left with an incomplete picture of a reconfiguration of the British religious landscape.

Videos from BASR 2020

The videos of the two panels from this year’s BASR conference are now available. The conference page is archived here. Here’s the info for each individual video:

Title: BASR 2020 | Teaching and Learning Panel

Description: The opening panel from BASR 2020 focused on Teaching and Learning. First is a presentation from 2020 Teaching Award recipient Melanie Prideaux, together with her student Natasha Jones (both University of Leeds). This is followed by an open discussion on the COVID-19 pivot to online delivery, with contributions from Dawn Llewellyn (2019 Teaching Award recipient, University of Chester), Stefanie Sinclair (BASR T&L rep, Open University), Paul-Francois Tremlett (Open University), BASR President Bettina Schmidt, Melanie Prideaux and Natasha Jones.


Title: BASR 2020 | Worldviews in RS and RE Panel

Description: This panel, curated by Wendy Dossett (University of Chester), discusses the Commission for Religious Education’s proposal for a shift towards studying “Religion and Worldviews” in Secondary Religious Education. Contributions from Wendy Dossett, Rudi Eliott Lockhart (former CEO of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales), Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity University), Paul-Francois Tremlett (Open University) and Malory Nye (Independent Academic affiliated to University of Glasgow).

New Publication | Ritual and Democracy: Protests, Publics and Performances

Senior Lecturer Paul-Francois Tremlett was one of the editors of the new Equinox volume, Ritual and Democracy: Protests, Publics and Performances, along with Sarah M. Pike (California State University) and Jone Salomonsen (University of Oslo). Ritual and Democracy explores the complex intersections of ritual and democracy in a range of contemporary, cultural and geographic contexts.

This transdisciplinary and theoretically innovative volume emerged out of a workshop held at the Open University in London, organized as part of the inter­national research project, “Reassembling Democracy: Ritual as Cultural Resource”, funded by the Norwegian Research Council and led by Jone Salomonsen. The seven research-led chapters presented here document entanglements of the religious and the secular in political assembly and iconoclastic protest, of affect and belonging in pilgrimage and church ritual, and politics and identity in performances of self and culture. Across the essays emerges a conception of ritual less as scripts for generating stability than as improvisational spaces and as catalysts for change.

The book grew out of the Norwegian Research Council funded project “Reassembling Democracy: Ritual as Cultural Resource”, to which several OU RS staff contributed. As well as Paul-Francois’ chapter, “A Tale of Two Energies: The Political Agency of Things”, it includes a chapter by Graham Harvey, entitled “Trans-Indigenous Festivals: Democracy and Emplacement”,

Equinox are offering a 25% discount. Go to https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/ritual-democracy/, and enter the code RELIGION at checkout.

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BHM | Africa at the Forefront of Global Scholarship

By Graham Harvey. This is the first in a series celebrating Black History Month 2020.

To point out that Africans have developed many mature and vital religions, philosophies and lifeways would be banal if it were not for the weight of distain which tends to dismiss these as primitive or foolish. Contested terms like “fetishism” and “animism” could illustrate the long history of prejudice in European assessments of African religions. However, looked at differently, and challenging the legacy of colonialism, they can instead draw attention to well-established African ideas and practices which turn out to have been prescient of cutting edge global scholarship.

In recent decades many academic disciplines have re-assessed human relationships with the wider world, not only with animals and plants but also with artefacts. Practices that were once dismissed as fetishism (allegedly a mistaken attribution of life to inanimate objects) now provide significant encouragement for the “ontological turn”, the “new animism” and the “new materialism”.

In these trans-disciplinary debates, Indigenous and other ways of understanding and moving through the world are inspiring challenges to dominant “Western” or “Modern” worldviews. In particular, researchers are re-considering European-originated obsessions with individuality. People, it turns out, are shaped by their relationships – and not just with other humans. We are always becoming some kind of relation: parent, student, chef, painter, philosopher, healer, story-teller or cat-lover perhaps. Other beings and objects – cats and computers, dogs and desks – make us who we are in each encounter. It is similar with desks: they are only desks when used to support computers, papers, pens and so on. Otherwise, perhaps they are just collections of word and screws.

In the colonial era, Europeans mocked Africans for making amulets and statuettes which they expected to provide guidance or protection. Let’s ignore for now the irony that those same Europeans were wearing religious symbols and venerating images of their deity and saints. Neither group was ignorant of the “made-ness” of the disputed objects. Prejudice and polemic stood in the way of understanding.

It has taken a long time to change things. African and African-diaspora songs, oratory, novels and poetry have contributed by familiarising the world with the ideas that have informed African adaptability and creativity over the years. The late Harry Garuba (Nigerian poet and professor of English Literature and African Studies in Cape Town, South Africa) demonstrated that understanding Africa requires understanding of what he called “animist realism”. This involves the active participation of the larger-than-human community (including made things as well as animals, birds and plants but also ancestors and other significant beings) in relationships and events. What might seem like poetic metaphors have the force of personal interactions. Cowrie shells and birds in flight communicate about reality. Calabashes and stomachs express their desires to be filled with palm wine.

Whether or not you agree with the poets and writers who deploy animist realism to propel the action of their work, there is a profound insight here into the multi-species world. Humans are far from alone or unique. Our relationships (including aggressive and unpleasant ones) with the larger community shape our lives. We are aided, and constrained, by our interactions with others. These ideas are foundational in recent scholarly debates in many disciplines (such as Actor-Network Theory). An improved, de-colonial relationship with Africa and its prescient ideas and practices can animate more new thinking about interactions between humans and the larger world.

The Invasion of Waziristan and its Aftermath

By Hugh Beattie

Just over a hundred years ago, at the end of 1919, British troops invaded Waziristan, a mountainous region on the border between Afghanistan and British India and the homeland of a number of semi-independent tribal groups, including the Mehsuds and the Wazirs. Widely reported around the world at the time, the invasion’s centenary has been almost entirely ignored in Britain. There are good reasons for remembering it though: the part played by Islamic loyalties and Muslim leaders in resistance to it, the complications caused by the fact that the region bordered on Afghanistan, British willingness to use the latest weaponry against its people, and the resulting disagreements among the British themselves. [For a sketch map of Waziristan see here. The places mentioned are more or less in the centre of the map]

Since the later nineteenth century British strategists had argued that Waziristan’s location on the border with Afghanistan meant that it would be a mistake to allow it to remain independent. Unable to justify the expense and trouble of conquering it outright, they succeeded in establishing a loose control over it by recruiting two militias and paying allowances to influential men. WWI had a major impact on this. In particular, sensing British weakness, in 1917 some Mehsuds launched a major anti-British rising, and in the late spring of 1919 many of the militiamen deserted and British influence in Waziristan largely evaporated. In order to reassert it, and to punish the Mehsuds for what was seen as their ‘bad behaviour’ during the war, Britain decided to try and take full control of the region.

The Barari Tangi (one of the gorges through which the British troops advanced in January 1920). https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1957-02-11-1

On December 19 1919 a force of 29,000 men began to move into Waziristan. The Mehsuds managed to pin it down on the edge of their territory and halted the advance. Resistance was led by an influential Mehsud, Musa Khan Abdullai, and a mullah called Fazal Din. Fazal Din was a son of a famous anti-British religious leader or ‘frontier mullah’, Muhiy-ud-Din, whom the British referred to as the Mullah Powindah. The Mehsuds saw themselves as defending Muslim territory from their Christian and Hindu invaders (many of the British troops were Hindus) as well as their independence, and may have received some help from an anti-British Muslim movement, the Jamaat-i-Mujahidin (based outside Waziristan). Some Wazir men joined the Mehsuds and the Afghan ruler, King Amanullah, sent one of his officers to assist them. The British position was so bad that some officials suggested that poison gas might be used to disperse them. After some weeks, however, the troops broke the Mehsud hold, and forcing two narrow gorges, were able to move into the heart of their territory and establish a base at Ladha. As they advanced the soldiers destroyed houses, terraced fields and irrigation canals, for instance the settlements around Makin, the Mehsuds ‘capital’.

Jirgah (council) of Mahsuds [Mehsuds] near Kaniguram Waziristan 1920 (with soldiers looking on). https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1993-08-106-185

According to one historian the expedition was a fiasco.[1] That may be an exaggeration, but it was expensive in terms of human life (and money) – it’s been estimated that as many as 2,500 soldiers died during it; probably more than 2,000 Mehsuds and Wazirs, including many non-combatants, died too. Nor did the British completely subdue the Mehsuds, and some of them took refuge in Afghanistan. In 1921 the British troops used howitzers to shell some of their villages. During the winter of 1922/23 the RAF bombed them and troops were sent to demolish buildings that had escaped destruction in the earlier attacks.

The burning of ‘Makin’ from air and land – Waziristan, Pakistan, dated 1890 but probably early 1920s. Photo by Mela Ram/royal Geographical Society/Getty Images.

The British had conducted punitive expeditions into various different parts of Waziristan before, but the troops had always withdrawn after killing anyone who resisted them, and destroying houses and crops and seizing flocks and herds. Keeping them there permanently attracted bad publicity internationally. It was also expensive, and the cost of the occupation had begun to worry senior officials. At one point a serious disagreement broke out between the British Government of India and the ‘Home Government’ over Waziristan policy. Towards the end of 1923 therefore the troops were withdrawn from Mehsud territory, and relocated to a place called Razmak just of the north of it, where they built a huge base. Some Mehsuds continued to resist them until 1925. In fact the British never succeeded in subduing the region completely. During the 1930s resistance principally came from the Mehsuds’ neighbours the Wazirs, led by another religious leader, Mirza Ali Khan, whom the British referred to as the Faqir of Ipi. When the British withdrew from the Indian sub-continent in 1947, they had still not brought Waziristan fully under their control.

Razmak Camp, Waziristan, 1940(c). https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1965-04-64-98

For fuller accounts of the expedition and its aftermath see, for example, Brian Robson, Crisis On The Frontier; The Third Afghan War and the Campaign in Waziristan 1919-20 (Staplehurst, 2004) and my Empire and Tribe in the Afghan Frontier Region: Custom, Conflict and British Strategy in Waziristan until 1947 (London/New York, 2019).

[1] James Spain, The Pathan Borderland (The Hague, 1963), p.183.

Science and Political Uncertainty from Auguste Comte to Dominic Cummings

By Dr Paul-François Tremlett

Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte (1798-1857) was writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution. To him it seemed that a new, rational, and modern, industrial-scientific order was emergent. The old, feudal formation of aristocracy, Church, and monarchy, with its arbitrary privileges, had been eclipsed in the violent energies of the revolution of 1789. Comte saw an opportunity to bring an end to the uncertainties of the times by establishing a new society on rational-secular principles that would be led by scientists, artists and industrialists. Comte described post-revolutionary France as a “social system which is dying” but it was simultaneously one that contained the seeds of a “new system whose time has come and which is in the process of taking definitive shape” (Comte 1998, p. 49).

Comte believed that a new science was needed to reorganize society by raising “politics to the rank of the sciences of observation” (1998, p. 81). Initially he called the new science “social physics” (Comte 1998, p. 158), and he drew methodological inspiration for it from physiology. Comte was so convinced of the new direction post-revolutionary French society needed to take he invented a new religion – a Church of Positivism – to embed the new values into the culture. For Comte, the uncertainties of the post-revolutionary period could only decisively be resolved by the elevation of a new elite to the reins of power armed with the new scientific methods and values he had pioneered, for the solution of political problems.

It is no secret that the agenda of the current government includes a radical overhaul of Whitehall (for example, see Abby Innes’ blog post analysing Michael Gove’s recent Ditchley Annual Lecture on civil service reform: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/gove-ditchley-lecture/). At the heart of this agenda stands the figure of Dominic Cummings and his blog. Cummings’ blog juxtaposes breathless discussion of some domains of contemporary scientific research with political questions. The post ‘On the referendum #33’ interests me because of the distinction it establishes between on the one hand “stories” and “authority”, and on the other, “evidence/experiment” and “quantitative models”. Cummings links “stories” to myth (“Icarus”) and authority to irrationality (“witch doctor”) while “evidence/experiment” and “quantitative models” are linked to “physics, wind tunnels” and the “design of modern aircraft”. Later, as part of a discussion of Bret Victor’s work, this becomes a contrast between “words and stories” and “interactive models”. Words, according to Cummings, are unreliable: “even the most modern writing tools” he claims, “are designed around typing in words, not facts. These tools are suitable for promoting preconceived ideas, but provide no help in ensuring that words reflect reality, or any plausible model of reality”. Models are better than stories because their “assumptions are clearly visible”. Cummings asks the reader to imagine a new kind of writing tool “designed for arguing from evidence”:

I don’t mean merely juxtaposing a document and reference material, but literally ‘autocompleting’ sourced facts directly into the document. Perhaps the tool would have built-in connections to fact databases and model repositories, not unlike the built-in spelling dictionary. What if it were as easy to insert facts, data, and models as it is to insert emoji and cat photos?

In common with Comte, Cummings assumes that a new kind of government is required which, once armed with the requisite new writing tools and skills in data analysis and modelling, can completely re-frame the political as a field of decision-making practices. This new kind of government will be data-savvy and will make extensive use of new technologies. But facts change: at the heart of science is not the establishment of facts which are then fixed and true for all time, but a tentative and reflexive process of research and debate. Science may promise the certainty of facts, data and models but it is a certainty that never arrives and which is forever deferred, such that all we are always left with is interpretation (Derrida 1997).

Comte and Cummings are of course not the only utopian revolutionaries to have asked, “what is to be done?” but what other such figures may more clearly have recognised – or just been more up-front about – is the connection between brute power and political change. Comte invented a religion, a social science and coined the terms altruism, sociology and positivism, but his work is rarely read or acknowledged today. It remains to be seen what Dominic Cummings leaves us with.



Comte, A. 1998. Early Political Writings, edited and translated by H. S. Jones. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cummings, D. 2019. ‘On the referendum #33: High performance government, ‘cognitive technologies’, Michael Nielsen, Bret Victor, & ‘Seeing Rooms’’. https://dominiccummings.com/2019/06/26/on-the-referendum-33-high-performance-government-cognitive-technologies-michael-nielsen-bret-victor-seeing-rooms/ . Accessed 12/08/2020.

Derrida, J. 1997. Of Grammatology, translated by G. C. Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.